The Trouble with High-Speed Rail

I am a lifelong train enthusiast. My favorite movie of all time is The Station Agent, a movie about a train enthusiast. One of my favorite books is Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. One of the highlights of my early adolescence was riding trains in Europe with my father. Even now I take trains as often as possible, and I’m planning to take some more ambitious rail journeys later this year. But my strong aesthetic preference doesn’t mean that the US should pour money into high-speed rail.

I realize that’s not what Matt Yglesias is saying in this post:

That’d make the 400 or so mile trip between DC and Charlotte something you’d probably want to do on the train. Similarly, the 250 or so miles between Charlotte and Atlanta, the 345 miles between Atlanta and Jacksonville, and the 349 miles between Jacksonville and Miami. And that, of course, is to say nothing of the possibilities of high-speed rail along the Boston-Washington corridor.

But I have to wonder. Who is the “you’d” who’d want to take the train? Presumably a North Carolinian who didn’t need or even want to drive her own car in Atlanta, which is fair enough. Plenty of people fly between those cities and then rent cars. And our air traffic system is definitely overburdened. But are there enough of these people to justify the expense, particularly when there are cheaper, more environmentally sound alternatives?

A now pretty dated study, from 1996, found the following:

This paper examines the full costs, defined as the sum of private and social costs, of a high-speed rail system proposed for a corridor connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco in California. The full costs include infrastructure, fleet capital and operating expenses, the time users spend on the system, and the social costs of externalities, such as noise, pollution, and accidents. Comparing these full costs to those of other competing modes contributes to the evaluation of the feasibility of high-speed rail in the corridor. The paper concludes that high-speed rail is significantly more costly than expanding existing air service, and marginally more expensive than auto travel. This suggests that high-speed rail is better positioned to serve shorter distance markets where it competes with auto travel than longer distance markets where it substitutes for air.

Ah, but what about a full account of the carbon impact! Well, George Monbiot cares a great deal about carbon impact, and he concluded that the best approach was … a decidedly unglamorous high-speed network of intercity buses.

But there are several other issues here too. The first one is that the bus is actually a more efficient means of transport than the train. Now the efficiency of both can be improved, but even with the very primitive means we have of driving buses and of driving trains the bus beats the train by quite a few kilograms of carbon per kilometre.

This is leaving aside the fact that building high-speed rail requires laying down new track through relatively dense areas, i.e., as Monbiot puts it,

you’re talking about driving new railroads through peoples’ gardens and through their land and through their houses and all the rest of it.

By calling for high-speed rail between sprawling southern cities, Matt is making an a fortiori argument. If it works for Atlanta and Charlotte, of course it will work for Boston and New York. These are eminently separable questions. When jobs and people are not clustered in an identifiable center, fixed rail systems don’t do you a lot of good. Let’s bracket the many failures of Amtrak, which Joseph Vranich has vividly detailed in Derailed and The End of the Line — at this point it seems beyond dispute that the future of passenger rail in this country depends on killing Amtrak and reforming railway labor laws. I agree that a handful of dense corridors might prove amenable to high-speed rail, in the northeast and possibly in the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor. (Los Angeles, after all, is the densest MSA in the country.) But should we spend public funds to make this happen now? Wired offerend an optimistic take on the future of high-speed rail last year.

Lighter materials, improved acceleration, and enhanced communications all translate to faster travel times and lower construction and operating costs. Until recently, the signaling systems that keep trains on course and prevent collisions were installed in the ground along the entire route. That equipment has now been replaced by cheaper satellite and wireless technologies.

That is, the technology is getting better and more importantly cheaper — cheap enough that we won’t need massive public investment in a broken passenger rail system in a few years time. If there were no tradeoffs to spending $37 billion on high-speed rail in California, I’d be all for it. But consider what that same amount of money could do in biogerontological research.

If we succeed in slowing aging by seven years, the age-specific risk of death, frailty, and disability will be reduced by approximately half at every age. People who reach the age of 50 in the future would have the health profile and disease risk of today’s 43-year-old; those aged 60 would resemble current 53-year-olds, and so on. Equally important, once achieved, this seven-year delay would yield equal health and longevity benefits for all subsequent generations, much the same way children born in most nations today benefit from the discovery and development of immunizations.

The cost? $3 billion a year. As much as I like trains, I’d rather live long and prosper. Some will say, “This is a false choice. What about the cost of this Iraq war!” And that’s fair. If one could magically travel through time to erase the cost of the Iraq war and apply the funds to high-speed rail, I would object — there are still better ways to spend the money — but I wouldn’t object too strongly. The sad and unfair fact is that there are always competing uses for our money and time.